Children and Adoption Bill [Lords]

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The Chairman: Before the Minister responds I want to make an important point: private fostering is not within the scope of the Bill. I hope that I have been generous in allowing discussion, but I am a little concerned that hon. Members are now focusing on something outwith the Bill’s scope.

Maria Eagle: Thank you, Mr. Hood. The clause deals with the creation of a criminal offence, to enable us to enforce the arrangements under part 2 of the Bill. I hear the points that hon. Members have made about private fostering, but I have nothing further to say, in view of what you have said, Mr. Hood. I hope that I have been able to answer all the questions that have been asked, within the leeway that you have given, and that members of the Committee will agree to clause 12.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13

Power to charge

12.15 pm

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 16, line 19, after ‘applies’, insert

    ‘and in doing so must have regard to the financial circumstances of the prospective adopter’.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 44, in page 16, line 22, after ‘(1)(b)’, insert

    ‘and in doing must have regard to the financial circumstances of the prospective adopter’.

No. 6, in page 16, line 27, at end insert—

      ‘(c)   provide a detailed breakdown of what costs have been borne to give rise to the fee.’.

Tim Loughton: Clause 13 is a bit more contentious. We have tabled three amendments to tease out what the Government are trying to charge for. Amendment No. 5 would add the requirement that any fee charged by the authorities must be proportionate and not completely block the prospective adopter from going ahead with the process. Amendment No. 44 repeats that requirement in subsection (3). Amendment No. 6 is on the same theme and would add a paragraph (c) to subsection (4), under which the Secretary of State and the Welsh Assembly may, if they decide to set a fee,
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decide whether to charge a flat fee or differential rates, or waive a fee in certain cases; they need to say why. We should like a proper breakdown of the costs that have been borne and that give rise to the fee. We cannot see exactly where the costs will come from and what value-added work will have been done.

I have already mentioned that it costs up to £10,000, typically, for a prospective adopter privately to complete an overseas adoption. That usually involves employing a private social worker to make an assessment overseas, and it is a long and cumbersome process, which can take well over a year. In some cases it can take years. All that the Secretary of State must do is rubber-stamp that application. Not much value-added work will be done.

We asked the Minister about this and one of her officials came up with a ballpark figure of £800 as the charge to facilitate clause 13. It is only reasonable that a prospective adopter who is asked to pay a fee should have a proper tariff and bill showing the work that has been done to give rise to it. I hope—and the Government have suggested—that the fee is intended only to cover costs, and not to make a profit out of international adoption.

We should like amendment No. 6 to result in an undertaking that full details will be provided of how the charges arise. We hope that amendments Nos. 5 and 44 will gain us an indication that the Government will take into account the financial circumstances of the prospective adopter. I can think of cases involving, for example, members of certain Church groups linked to communities in the third world, who want to adopt a child from one of those developing countries. They are people without recourse to large amounts of money. We are not talking about cosy middle-class families making a lifestyle decision to spend some of their money to adopt for whatever reason.

It has been indicated that the Secretary of State could waive the fee if the adoption had a family connection, but we should like some elaboration on other circumstances in which the fee would be waived altogether. We want greater articulation from the Minister on how means-tested the fees are likely to be, although they will not be strictly means-tested, and what the charges will be for.

BAAF has drawn attention to problems with the clause. One of its briefings says:

    “It is hard to see why one group of UK residents—prospective intercountry adopters—should be singled out for payment of a fee for the provision of a service such as this. It is disingenuous to argue that this is a service for adults rather than a service to children. The procedures are in place principally to protect children, not to ‘smooth the wheels’ for adopters. Any suggestion that public money should only be spent on safeguarding the welfare of children indigenous to this country is surely repugnant both morally and in the light of international obligations.”

BAAF believes that

    “any additional financial burden on intercountry adopters may run the risk of a minority seeking to circumvent procedures, thereby putting some children at risk. It must be borne in mind that the procedures apply equally to those who wish to adopt a relative from overseas, and it could be a grave disservice to some children if the opportunity for family life with members of their extended family were denied them for financial reasons . . . Given
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    this government’s commitment to address poverty issues worldwide, the imposition of this particular charging mechanism seems quite inappropriate.”

We are not talking about a large amount of money, in the greater scheme of things. Some 300 inter-country adoptions are taking place, and we are talking about charging hundreds, hopefully, rather than thousands. On that basis, there seems to be a big disconnect between the cost of domestic adoption procedures and the additional costs that the Government are now trying to impose on international adopters.

These are probing amendments to tease out exactly what charges will be involved and why the Government think that they are justified in charging them, and to get further detail on how people who are not in a position to pay the additional fees will be helped out rather than completely deterred from going ahead with international adoptions that could strongly favour the welfare of the child.

Annette Brooke: I appreciate that the matter was debated at great length in the other place, but questions remain. In particular, does the money not relate to child protection? I find it hard to come to terms with the fact that the money is, or appears to be, loaded on particular individuals. The service is not available only to individuals; it must be part of the service to local authorities, for example. How will it be separated out?

I understand that the average time for processing such applications is 18 to 23 weeks. Obviously it needs to be a careful process, but with such high charges, people have a right to know exactly what they are paying for and what quality of service they can expect. I hope that the Minister will answer during debate on the present amendments.

Beverley Hughes: I do not think that there is anything between us on the spirit of the amendments and what we intend to achieve and the way in which we seek to implement charges. As hon. Members have identified, clause 13 provides a power for the Secretary of State to charge to meet the costs of the administration of inter-country adoption casework. As we have heard, that proposal was the subject of some debate in another place. It was finally acknowledged that it is a matter of prioritising. With limited funds available there is an argument about where those funds should be spent as a priority, and making a proportionately small charge is in my view reasonable in terms of that context of wider priorities.

I have no difficulty at all with the intention behind amendments Nos. 5 and 44, which seek to clarify the Bill’s provision on charging for casework provided by the Department for Education and Skills to inter-country adopters. As we have heard, under amendment No. 5 the Secretary of State would have to have regard to the financial circumstances of potential adopters when imposing a fee. It has already been made clear in the other place that we fully agree with that principle, but we are satisfied that we can and will achieve that goal without the need for the amendment.
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Therefore, we do not accept it. However, I will set out the way in which we are going about the matter and what we intend to do.

As hon. Members will see, the clause prevents the Secretary of State and the Assembly from making any profit in charging for those services. That is important because it provides the framework. During the Bill’s passage we have made it clear that only those able to pay should be expected to do so. We have no intention of penalising the less well-off, some of whom may be attempting to adopt relatives from abroad. Although we will not specifically propose to waive for that category of relative, they tend to be less affluent than many inter-country adopters and so would qualify for the waiving scheme that we are proposing.

In the other place, my noble Friend Lord Adonis gave a clear assurance that we intend to set out objective criteria linked to income. We have been consulting on that matter with relatives’ groups and we think that household income is the right benchmark in determining which adopters should be asked to pay a fee. In order for that to occur in practice, the Secretary of State must need to have regard to the financial circumstances of each prospective adopter before a fee is imposed. That means that the amendment is not technically necessary, although I understand that Members want to hear more about the scheme.

Amendment No. 44 simply seeks to ensure that the National Assembly for Wales will also have regard to the circumstances when imposing a fee. We are talking about a regime under which we will take into account household income. We cannot make a profit; nor can we have any cross-subsidy in terms of those who pay the full fee offsetting the cost for others. We will come to a system in which there will be groups of adopters based on their levels of income. The fee will rise proportionately from nothing for incomes under a certain level up to the full fee for those adopters whose household income is over a specific level. That will mean that people on low incomes, where they apply for inter-country adoptions, will probably—I would not want to be held to these figures, because we are still considering the detail—

Mrs. Miller: Will the Minister give way?

Beverley Hughes: If I could just finish the point it might be helpful to the hon. Lady. Where a household income, for example, is under about £20,800, adopters would pay no fee at all. Under the scheme we envisage, incomes would rise in quintiles—groups of five—until above a certain level the prospective adopter would pay the full fee. We are still working on the details because, as Opposition Members know, the caseworking function has been transferred from London to Darlington. We are still considering the Darlington cost, as opposed to the London cost; we expect the fee to be in the order of that cited by my noble Friend—up to about £1,000—but it has still to be refined.

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12.30 pm

Mrs. Miller: I want to press the Minister further on this complex matter, which was debated at length in another place, when Lord Adonis stated that he would publish details as soon as possible. We are grateful to the Minister for expanding on some of the criteria that may be used, but a few matters remain undecided.

Lord Adonis made his statement about publishing the criteria in October, and it is now March. Does the Minister feel that it would be appropriate to proceed with more urgency? She rightly said that in the great scheme of things £1,000 is not a huge amount for the Government to think about, but for the people involved in the procedures who want to adopt, it is a considerable sum. We owe it them to clarify very important issues before the Bill goes any further. I thank the Minister for taking the time to flesh out what is in her mind.

Beverley Hughes: We will publish the details and further consult those groups we have already consulted. We had discussions with the relevant groups before deciding on a broad framework. As I said, we have to revisit some of the initial costings that we used, as they were based on staff in London, not Darlington. The case-working function has moved to another part of the country and we have to ensure that we charge on the basis of full cost recovery—the actual cost, not the notional cost—so we must get the figures right. When we have done so, we will publish them and ask for people’s views on what we propose, and I shall try to ensure that that is done as soon as possible. The scheme is due to start in April 2007, so we have a little time before it is imminent.

Amendment No. 6 raised issues such as the breakdown of the costs that will give rise to the fee on a cost-recovery basis, and I want to reassure hon. Members on that point. It is right that we should provide clear and easily accessible information about charges before they are incurred, which should include information about the method of calculation of the fee, when it may be waived or reduced and what elements it is paying for.

I did not wholly agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. that the process does not add much value. It is a service not just to the adopter, but to the other country concerned because it provides a validation showing that adopters have gone through a proper process to assure their suitability to take a child. The Government are endorsing that process, having reviewed it and certified that the applicant is someone who is suitable to adopt. It is not just a tick-box exercise; the Government are saying, “Yes, the local authority or the adoption agency that has undertaken the assessment has done so properly. We are assured of its validity and can therefore assure you, the third country, that this person is suitable to take a child.” When it is expressed in that way, Opposition Members might appreciate that the case workers who do such work take it seriously. Other elements are involved, such as, notarisation,
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legalisation, translation, and the management of applications through to completion, and couriering to the country concerned, and so on.

The process is not simply a straightforward, administrative, filing one; subjective judgments are involved, and it gives this country’s validation. We must take that very seriously. Having explained that, and given the spirit of the amendment, I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will withdraw the amendment because we will provide to adopters what it seeks to do, which is to set out the purpose of the fees.

Mrs. Miller: The Minister has done a good job of expressing the importance of the service and the added value that she feels is given. I should like to press her a little more on the standard of service. I understand from the notes that I have read that it takes between 18 and 23 weeks to process files that are ongoing, and there was a target to undertake that duty in around 12 weeks, although that changed recently. Will she give us her thoughts on what is a reasonable period in which to expect the organisation to process files in order to reach a good standard of quality, particularly when such a fee is payable. The people who participate may require more detail on the matter.

The Chairman: Order. I am listening to a speech not an intervention.

Beverley Hughes: I perfectly agree with the hon. Lady. As I was stressing, the quality of decision making in the validation process is important, but so is the quality and standard of service that we offer. I am aware that some cases took an unacceptable time last year—about 26 weeks I think. I agree that that is unacceptable, but the service is in the process of being re-engineered; the move to Darlington is part of that process. We have committed ourselves to setting a benchmark of between 10 and 12 weeks for cases in which the documentation is in good order and no serious omissions or issues must be pursued that will take some time.

I understand that in recent weeks the times have fallen to between 10 and 12 weeks, so we are delivering the standard of service that we set. That has been part of the improvement in the whole service, and we want to see that as a norm for relatively straightforward cases in which, as I said, there are no serious omissions or problems with the documentation.

I hope that my comments have reassured Opposition Members. We are with them on the spirit of the amendments and intend to ensure that that is delivered through the way in which the charging scheme is implemented. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful for the Minister’s elaboration, which was certainly useful. I am also grateful for her comments on the quality of service. As my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke rightly mentioned there have been lapses in the past, and if people are expected to pay for a service, it should be a decent one.

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I am slightly in the dark about some matters; it is my fault if I missed this in the Minister’s explanation, but is she indicating that, subject to final guidelines being published, which has taken rather a long time, prospective adopting families on an income of less than £20,800 would not be expected to pay the fee, but that the service would be subject to full cost recovery? Let us say that about 300 such international adoptions take place each year, and that the service will cost £800, although that figure has probably gone up since I was given it. If we multiply £800 by 300, we get £240,000. If 299 prospective adopters are all on salaries of £20,800 or less, will it fall to the one lucky person who earns £21,000 to pay the complete bill of £240,000 in order for the Department to recover its costs?

Beverley Hughes: Full-cost recovery relates only to the maximum that can be charged to any individual. It is not full-cost recovery across the whole service, so those who receive a degree of waiver on the fee will be subsidised by the Department.

Tim Loughton: That will come as a great comfort to prospective adopters who find themselves just above the threshold. Effectively, the Minister is saying that the Department may subsidise on the basis that some lower-income families or Church groups may seek to adopt. It is helpful to know that.

The Minister said that the Department is prevented from making a profit, but the staff running the Department have all been shipped off to Darlington, which is apparently much cheaper. However, I am grateful for her answers. The amendments were probing, and the Minister has given us much of the detail that we required. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Ann Coffey: I understand that the charge is an administrative fee. In fact, the major cost of applying for intercountry adoption is the cost of the home study report, which I gather is about £5,000 a year, and it is paid to the local authority. I am not clear whether local authorities apply some test of affordability when they ask for that fee. When applying the affordability principle, will the Minister consider extending it to home study costs, particularly for families applying to adopt a family member living in another country, which is a cross between domestic adoption and foreign adoption. I think that we have traditionally seen that as a cost to the adult. It would be helpful if the Minister considered how the home study report fits in.

Tim Loughton: Before the hon. Lady sits down, and to give the Minister time for in-flight refuelling, I can say that I made inquiries of my local authority when we were considering the Adoption and Children Act 2002 and found that it charged about £1,750 for the home study pack. Surrey, next door, charged nothing, and other authorities charged £5,000 or more. There is
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a postcode lottery, with local authorities having the autonomy to decide whether to waive the fee. Nothing in the Bill levels that out, which may be a weakness.

Ann Coffey: Obviously, the clause is not directly concerned with the cost of home study reports, but when I started working in this area in 1988, it was left to the local authority to decide what to charge. At that time, it depended on the priority that the local authority gave such matters. Some authorities simply did not like intercountry adoption and imposed a high charge—not to recover the costs but to discourage people from applying. If we are to introduce a new charge, this might be an opportune moment to consider what has been happening with charging for home study reports in general.

12.45 pm

Beverley Hughes: My hon. Friend is very experienced in these matters, and I am sure that she knows the answer to her own question, which is that the situation is extremely variable: some local authorities charge nothing and others up to about £5,000. This is part of the whole package of fees an adopter has to pay. Indeed, there are often considerable charges from the country concerned. With an adoption from China, for example, the fees add up to another £3,000. It is a considerable undertaking.

I do not have any plans to put constraints on local authorities or to decree some central yardstick or benchmark for charging. Local authorities have decided matters for themselves for a long time, and it is right for local charges to be determined locally. With those clarifications, I hope that hon. Members will be satisfied that clause 13 should stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14

Other amendments relating to adoptions from abroad

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Annette Brooke: On Second Reading, I raised an issue on which I should have liked to table an amendment. Foreign adoption of UK children was discussed at every stage in the other place and reached the point at which there was a possibility of a way forward. Obviously, the protection of children is paramount, and I appreciate why we have restrictions. The only channel for requesting an easing of those restrictions is the High Court. I should like an easing of the requirement for a 10-week domicile of the child with the parents from abroad. There are many reasons for that, and I understand them entirely, but in a few cases where the child may have foreign connections, it can be an insurmountable barrier.

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I genuinely want an answer on this. The last time the matter was raised, Lord Adonis said that it would be looked at further, that there was perhaps a need for suitable flexibility to deal with very unusual cases, and that there might be an opportunity for the Government to introduce some amendments on Report. Is that being considered, in which case I need not engage my thought processes in writing amendments myself, or are the Government still thinking about it?

Tim Loughton: I have been drawn back to proceedings on the Adoption and Children Act 2002. Subsection (1) substitutes “twelve” for “six” in section 83 of that Act. Remarkably, that very amendment was tabled in the Standing Committee in 2001. I thought that the hon. Lady would mention it because it was tabled by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who I thought would be a member of this Committee and who could therefore have taken credit for being so prescient as to predict five years ago that something would not work. In response to that hon. Lady’s suggestion of extending the period to 12 months—in amendment No. 159—the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), said:

    “Extending the period to 12 months would not increase our chances of catching those leaving the country for a short period in order to adopt. However, it would increase our chances of catching those who legitimately choose to go through the adoption procedures in the country where they live.”—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, 6 December 2001; c. 479.]

With that clarification she asked the hon. Member for Romsey to withdraw the amendment. What has changed over those few years, so that the Minister was wrong and the hon. Lady was right, as supported by us?

Beverley Hughes: I appreciate that the issue of the 10 weeks and the circumstances in which UK children may be adopted abroad in foreign countries were of considerable debate in the other place. I was surprised not to see amendments to similar effect here.

With the situation as it stands under the 2002 Act, which is what brought the change from the previous position to the 10-week period, what we want is a trial period to consider whether the relationship between the prospective adopters and the child is likely to be stable and lasting. That seems to be an essential component of the process, providing information to the courts about whether the making of a lasting adoption order is in the best interests of the child. As members will know, the local authority prepares a report to the court setting out its opinion on the likely
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success or otherwise of the placement. That is a minimal required position to try to ensure that the proposed arrangements are going to work for the children.

Such a route is slightly more onerous than the previous court-order route, although less onerous than the six-month cohabitation period. For safeguarding, which the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said at the outset was her overriding principle, we have come to the settled position that the 10-week provision is right, striking the balance between safeguarding children and having a requirement for adopters, which, while important, is not over-onerous. We have concluded that we will keep to the current position, particularly on the safeguarding issue.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham asked what had changed since the amendment was debated some years ago. The argument, to which my noble Friend Lord Adonis alluded in the House of Lords, if I remember the debate correctly, is that we feel that there have been some cases in which people are circumventing the six-month rule who would be caught by a 12-month rule. We have had some cases of UK residents adopting children, then leaving them in the care of a person in another country until the six months have passed, in order to avoid meeting the conditions. Members may ask why we have 12 months and not another period, but there is a balance, as with everything. We know that in certain cases the six-month rule is being circumvented by people with the wherewithal to do so. Twelve months discourages people from circumventing the restrictions.

While attempting to strengthen the legislation, I recognise that no system can be watertight. However, we believe on the basis of evidence put before us over recent years that we cannot leave the six months. We have to raise the bar somewhat and, because of cases that we are aware of, we propose 12 months. It might have been better to do that when the amendment was proposed some years ago, but the thinking then was based on evidence at the time. We have now considered the issue more closely and believe that cases are getting around the system, so we feel that we must tighten it. That is why we propose 12 as opposed to six months. I hope that hon. Members are reassured and will accept that clause 14 should stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Cawsey.]

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to One o’clock till this day at Four o’clock.

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